34th AD candidates speak out on police reform, COVID-19 and more

35 Assembly
Candidates for New York State’s 34th Assembly District from left to right: Jessica González-Rojas, Assemblymember Michael DenDekker, Joy Chowdhury. Photos from campaign and government websites.

With the Queens Democratic Party opening up for the first time in years with new candidates, six-term Assemblymember Michael DenDekker (D-Jackson Heights, Woodside, East Elmhurst) is being forced to defend his seat for the first time.

His opponents are lawyer Angel Cruz, former Executive Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, community activist and U.S. National Guard member Joy Chowdhury, and former Manhattan prosecutor Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo. 

Queens County Politics (QCP) reached out to the candidates with the three following questions. All but O’Doherty-Naranjo responded. The candidates’ answers are lightly edited for grammar and style.

QCP: Beyond defunding police departments and the other proposals on the table lately, what would you propose legislatively to ensure true accountability in police departments around the state? 

Joy Chowdhury: Defund, Redistribute, and Community-Centric Policing. As a National Guard reserve member, I am committed to public service. Similar to first-responders and health-care workers, we in the reserve care about the reputation of our office. I care about better and effective policing. We need to propose new legislation building commissions and task-forces to study the long-term structural issues of racism in our police departments and how to reform the institution of policing so black and brown folks don’t end up dead. We are releasing specific proposals tomorrow on this. 

Angel Cruz: The police serve a vital function in our society and the profession is entitled to respect. Modern day policing however, requires a renewed commitment to community policing. As assemblyman, I would propose legislation which requires local police officers assigned to patrol, reside within the neighborhood in which they police. In that way, we return to the local police officer the sensibilities and ethos of the local community, and improve the relationship and intelligence deriving therefrom. I would also renew our commitment to diversity in the NYPD brass, and rank and file by targeting inner city youth. 

Michael DenDekker: I believe there should be a mechanism for police officers to anonymously report misconduct from other officers to an independent body (it must be outside of the police department in question) or a body overseen by the New York State Attorney General’s Office.

González-Rojas: The Black Lives Matter movement is helping us reconsider the role of the police in our lives. I believe we need to dismantle the police-prosecutor-prison pipeline that has been so damaging to communities of color. We need to shift resources away from the police, courts, and corrections and towards education, healthcare, and housing. True accountability means additional criminal justice reforms, including ending cash bail.

QCP: What do you see as the biggest challenge for the state’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting budget cuts, and how would you combat it legislatively? 

Chowdhury: Our campaign plans to work with other candidates and current New York State Assembly electeds in Albany and their staffers on COVID-19 relief bills for our state’s residents. This is also an opportunity for us to build the progressive future we deserve. This is how:

a. Economy/Jobs – Our campaign wrote a Gig Worker’s Protection Act (GWPA) that can be found on my website. This ensures gig workers are classified as employees and receive the following benefits from employers: health insurance, paid sick leave, minimum wage, 401k, and more. Our campaign will also work with local organizations to support job re-training, vocational training, and digital skills to get COVID-19 positive folks hired in new, emerging, digital industries.

b. I plan to advocate for specific COVID-19 relief as part of the New York Health Act (NYHA) discussion, guaranteeing universal health insurance coverage to every New Yorker, especially those currently uninsured or under-insured e.g. the undocumented, low-income folks, public housing residents, immigrants, and others. These populations have the highest COVID-19 positive case-load and deaths, especially in the immigrant and POC community. Also, we have lots of Black folks in the district who require COVID health relief. It’s time we center the marginalized first.

c. We need a Rent Bailout from the New York State Assembly, and I plan to advocate a new bill working with housing justice organizers on drafting. Folks who tested positive for COVID-19 (especially black and brown folks) need relief with rent, housing, and utility costs.

Cruz: I am a small business owner (law firm). I know first hand the importance of a balanced budget. I believe the biggest challenge will be for the government to strike a balance between essential services and what I call peripheral services in this time of austerity. The day of wine and roses with large government payrolls is over. The next assembly person of the 34th must be one with the ability to develop coalitions to ensure  the 34th Assembly District receives its fair share of that budget. The day of electing the spineless who just go along to get along will not do. The Medicaid entitlement program must be revisioned but protected and we must avoid tax hikes with budget cuts in waste.

DenDekker: I am concerned that the federal government will not fully fund the state’s projected shortfall and will recommend cuts to services. In order for the state to adequately fund schools, social programs, and Medicaid, we need to use creative ways to increase revenues so that we can keep helping our constituents and fund our society in a more equitable way. I have co-sponsored bills that would impose a tax on individuals making over $100 million annually and enact a pied-à-terre tax. I also support a stock transfer tax, legalizing marijuana, legalizing mobile sports betting, and expanding casinos into New York City as additional means of bringing more revenue to New York State.

González-Rojas: The coronavirus has exposed that representation matters because inequality kills. The pandemic has hit our community –– Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, Corona, and Woodside –– the hardest because the systems of government have failed us. Communities of color, especially with low-income and undocumented people, are more likely to be housing insecure and lack access to healthcare. We need a #RecoveryForAll that will help all New Yorkers regardless of employment, documentation status, and income and to pass Senator Jessica Ramos’ Excluded Worker Fund to provide economic aid to undocumented immigrants excluded from federal relief.

QCP: What do you think is the most forgotten or not talked about issue facing New York State today and why? And if elected, what would you do to fix it? 

Chowdhury: Forgotten issue – Lack of South Asian representation in the New York State Assembly. There are 80-150k Bangladeshis in New York City. We don’t have a single city-wide elected. My district has thousands of South Asians who feel under-represented. Various electeds do not hire South Asians in their offices. This needs to change. I’m happy to be endorsed by Bangladeshi-Americans for Political Progress (BAPP), a group I helped to co-found last summer. 

Cruz: The list is long. However, in criminal justice – allow returning citizens convicted of violent crimes to remove the stigma of ex-felon after 15 years of good conduct to ensure those who have demonstrated reformation can pursue a position of trust in our society without the continued burden of explaining the long ago violation. Rich or poor, Black, brown or white –– all deserve justice, all deserve mercy, all deserve some measure of unmerited grace and the opportunity to live the full measure of citizenship without the public stigma of felon.

I also would introduce legislation which addresses and incentivize “green” jobs including tax abatement for single family houses which convert to solar energy.  

In the context of housing – I would require cities to fashion individual plans which usher homeless populations from temporary housing to permanent housing, including a holistic approach to social services and reaffirming our commitment to tax benefits in building affordable housing. In addition, I would urge that the construction materials and labor of all state contracted construction projects be purchased locally to generate economic development. There should be no publicly funded construction projects without a direct economic benefit to the affected community in jobs and materials purchased to the extent it is possible.

In the context of medicine – we need to revise the Medicaid supported system and incentivize students to become doctors with free tuition in return for service in rural and inner city New York. 

There are a few items in our election laws which require legislation as well –  to ease ballot access but in a way which does not encourage fraud in the process. 

DenDekker: I believe that we are forgetting about the importance of combating alcohol and substance abuse. We currently do not provide enough resources, and continually prosecute those who committed an offense while under the influence of alcohol and drugs. We need to divert all individuals to treatment programs rather than jail. Roughly three quarters of all persons incarcerated were intoxicated or under the influence of drugs at the time they committed their offense. That is unconscionable; people who have alcohol and substance abuse issues need to be identified before trial and diverted to treatment, and those currently incarcerated need to have their cases looked at. We should mandate in-patient treatment, and after successfully completing treatment, those fighting addiction should be required to participate in aftercare and outpatient programs and return to work (or a halfway house program) with continuing treatment. I have authored a bill that would impose a small tax on alcoholic beverages to double the funding available to alcohol and substance abuse prevention, treatment, recovery, and education services. I am currently working with various recovery advocates and prison reform groups trying to work on a solution.

González-Rojas: We must tax the rich. Austerity has never worked. You cannot save your way out of a crisis. You must invest in the future to put people back to work, expand opportunities, and stimulate the economy. We learned this from both the Great Depression (1930s) and the Great Recession (2008). During the coronavirus pandemic, which devastated our communities, wealthy people made hundreds of billions in profit. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people died, small businesses lost revenue and had to close, and the unemployment rate skyrocketed as millions lost their jobs. We must reverse this inequity by raising income taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to maintain the essential services of our society: education, healthcare, and housing.

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